I recently read the book "Building a Better Teacher" by Elizabeth Green. The book opens with her description of a teacher in the midst of an elementary math lesson. As I read the account, I began feeling anxious, and I must admit a bit overwhelmed. She describes a student at the front of the room working out a math problem, but then getting stuck in their understanding. This is where the critical decision making comes in for the teacher. The teacher must decide what to do next. Do they call on someone else to assist the student who is struggling? What happens to that student if she does? Will that student achieve understanding of the concept, or be hurt that the teacher called on someone else? Will the rest of the class feel less likely to take a risk and share their thinking in front of class knowing that the teacher will call on someone else to point out how they are wrong? If you don't call on someone else, how do you move forward and resolve the problem? How long do you let the student stand up there before intervening? If you ask the student to clarify their thinking, then what? When they share their understanding and it's wrong, what question you ask to the class will impact the rest of the activity. The decisions go on and on, and I am sure I am not doing justice to the decisions and consequences that educators make every minute of everyday.
This book, and this story in particular help remind me how difficult it is to be an educator. In my current role I work with teachers and support them in their efforts. I have been out of the classroom, well a better description is I have not had my own classes for the past four years. In this role I work with teachers and students to integrate technology. I love what I do, and am passionate for changing education. However, this book, and my recent experience subbing in a 4th grade class were humbling reminders of the monumental tasks that teachers have each day.
Reflecting on the difficulties of teaching helps remind me that the pace of growth is often slower than I would like. Meetings with teachers often result in positive conversation, but don't always translate into transformation in educational practice. Teachers I work with want to do better. They seek out opportunities for improvement. They are passionate about being innovative and most importantly doing what is best for students. They sometimes run into obstacles, one of the most significant is time. There is a limited amount of time to do all the things they want. I know this from my own experience. The struggle to adapt and change practice is often the result of a lack of time.
What I have come to realize as an educator is that progress happens, just not always at the rate we expect. As a classroom teacher, I wanted to improve myself each and everyday. Learn new things, be the best I could be. Looking back, I realize I didn't embody this, especially early in my career. I fell into the the trap of doing things the way that I had experienced in my own education. As I learned and grew, I saw how others had helped push me in the right direction. They didn't pull me, but rather nudge me, and a few times kick me down the path of improvement.
As a teacher I found that the best results came when I got out of my student's way. When I gave them a task and let them solve it their own way. Sometimes I had to push, nudge and a few times shove them (gently) towards improvement. I had to allow them freedom of choice, but more importantly explain the why. When they understood why we were doing something they excelled. When I gave them opportunity to perform in real world situations, they soared. It quickly became evident that all students have the potential to amaze if we as educators can provide them the platform to shine.
Over the course of this past year, I have had a few instances that have really shown me the power of leading from behind. Working with a number of teachers, I have seen them grow. And with their improvement, has come exciting opportunities for their students. During this year, I have had a number of conversations with one teacher and seen the growth that she has taken. We have worked together for four years, and in that time I have seen her take more risks, try new things, and celebrate the cool opportunities she has been able to provide for students. This year she approached me about setting up some technology sessions for a PD session at her school. She wanted to provide teachers opportunity to learn some new things and share with each other the great things happening in the building. In the past, my group of Tech Integrators would have lead these offerings. Her vision was to have teachers showcase the things they are doing. We planned the day, inviting teachers to present and share their expertise. In the end we had several teachers volunteer to present. The rest of the staff was excited about the opportunity to have a day like this. The one overwhelming suggestion was to have more time to explore the tools. Planning a PD day, and pushing for more opportunities to present to staff on technology is something this teacher wouldn't likely have done when I first met her.
In reflecting on her drive and passion to create this and other opportunities, I have come to realize that some of that is a result of the conversations we have had. I do not want to give myself too much credit here, because it isn't about me. She is the one who planned the event, pushed to meet with the admin, contacted the teachers, and put the plan into motion. My learning from this is that it was years of conversations, supporting her, celebrating when she took a risk and sharing the times when I saw growth that helped contribute to her moving forward.
Leadership isn't about credit, it is about the process to move others forward. If we want a high functioning organization, we must support all staff and help them move forward. This movement can be slow going. While the activities I described are the result of four years of collaboration, that doesn't mean it took four years to see growth. Beginning in year one there were strides being taken. In year two there was evidence of significant growth, and in years three and four, it was obvious that this individual was embarking on their own path of leadership as they worked on influencing others.
Leading from Behind allows others to shine, and in the end it provides opportunities for all. Most importantly through the efforts to build others up and see them succeed, the entire organization succeeds. Education is one of the most difficult careers there is. When we work together, support each other, we can make a difference in the lives of each and every student. As a leader we must never forget our purpose is to do what is best for students, and as a school leader, supporting teachers to be there best will most certainly move us forward in achieving success for all!